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Bass and the Creative Mindset II: A Conversation with Ray Peterson

By Ray Peterson and Barbara Wiesenberg

In Part II of Bass and the Creative Mindset, Barbara Wiesenberg and Ray Peterson continue their conversation exploring the finer points of creative bass playing. Part one of this interview can be found here: https://bassmusicianmagazine.com/2011/03/bass-and-the-creative-mindset-a-conversation-with-ray-peterson/

Life is demanding. In our previous discussion, you talked a bit about “servitude to the daily grind.” When creative lightning strikes at a most inconvenient time, how do you react? Do you stop whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, to record of the thought? Do you attempt to hold the moment in your short term memory until you find the right moment to express it? Do you ever panic for fear of losing possibly the greatest musical idea, ever, when you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for bursting forth into spontaneous creation?

Any one of the above can be true, depending on the situation. I try to make the best adaptation possible, but the operative word here is “possible.” If all else fails, there usually is a pen and paper nearby, and I just try to scribble the idea down. Just draw five lines on a page and presto: Staff paper!

We can agree that creativity is a “force.” Then again, so is a herd of wild horses. That said, how does one go about “guiding” creativity without disturbing it, which in effect, would limit it? Do you set any realistic parameters when you’re in creative mode?

Creative flow can manifest in one of two general ways. Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere, and ideas start pouring out spontaneously. In this case, I think it’s best to simply get out of the way and let the ideas come out naturally. Fine tuning and editing can come later, but to inject one’s will when the spontaneous flow of ideas is happening is pure folly, in my opinion. Too much conscious thought blocks the stream of subconscious inspiration. This approach relies more on the feeling of the moment. Ideas are triggered by emotion, which seem to draw musical ideas from some unseen source.

Although this method often yields the most emotionally satisfying results, I find relying on this “pure” inspiration to be a sure way of writing very little material. Therefore, in the second method, I sit down with a basic idea of what style or groove I want to write in, which is often influenced by the feeling of the moment. I then try to mentally go into the corresponding rhythmic and/or emotional state, whether it be a ballad, funk, rocker, what have you, letting the rhythmic, melodic and emotional feel of that particular musical flow guide the way. Doing this helps to lessen that feeling of being confronted by complete emptiness, and provides a general framework for the creative energies to channel themselves. I think of this as a way of narrowing down the possibilities. After I’ve come up with one or two ideas, I may at some point start to think about what will work as far as form is concerned. Knowing that a certain section is going to be a bridge, for instance, can help determine the basic character of that section melodically, and can further help in the forming of musical ideas. I can also look ahead and sense that a particular section I’m working on needs to come to rest or completion soon, which in turn can influence where the piece goes melodically and harmonically. Here we see principles that are learned and studied interacting with creative inspiration. This also applies to improvisational playing, where the style and groove of a particular piece helps to suggest melodic possibilities.

Is there a point where one can be so creative that they can actually get in their own way and become a hindrance to productivity? I mean this in terms of efficiency: Can one get so caught up in one’s own head that they never actually complete a project or will leave a promising project unfinished? I’ve seen and known a lot of musicians who are really talented and creative, but they suffer from inefficiency when it comes to structuring their creativity CON-structively in order to get a project done within a reasonable time frame. Many times they simply stop a project… quit, give up, break up the band, get drunk, whatever.

In my mind, at least, if you’re being creative, you’re being productive. You can always edit later, or start a completely different piece and come back to the work at hand at another time, but you can’t always bank on inspiration making itself felt. Again, I would see trying to control creativity in this manner by stopping or impeding a particular flow as if it were undisciplined or because it is extraneous to one’s preconceived conscious intent as an undesirable imposition of one’s will. On the other hand, the practical aspects of completing a project demand that you sit down and finish what you have to do, so you need to be pragmatic about it.  Do you need to work out the technical difficulties of a particular passage in order to get a perfect take in a recording? Set aside practice time to achieve that end. Are you at the mixing stage of a recording? Set time aside for that, and don’t let yourself be diverted. Completing something is all about mental focus and seeing it through to the end.

Describe your perception of the relationship between creativity and heightened emotion. Are your most profound moments manifest through life’s very bright-brights or its dark-darks? Can one experience moments of intense creative energy absent strong emotion?

Brights and/or darks, either one will serve. I’ve written happy music, dark music, and combinations thereof. It’s all fuel if you wish it to be. I’ve even written happy music when I was pretty much unhappy, as a sort of therapy, one might say. Joy and sadness can be equally profound and can intermingle, as well.

I find even ostensibly “rational” processes like refining the voice-leading in a tune, or even something as seemingly technical as getting the right drum sound on a recording can subsequently release a feeling of elation. In such cases, even though the original impetus may have been calculated, the end result triggers emotion; either joy at finding the solution, or frustration at not being able to find it.

Name some aspects of creativity you think are universal throughout any modality of creative expression.

Patience, persistence, concentration, openness, receptivity, desire, passion, diligence, hard work, inspiration, flexibility, imagination, determination, talent, identity, expression, willingness to take a risk, curiosity, a sense of wonder, courage – on a good day! On the bad days, quality number one – patience – can come in mighty handy.

Identify expressions of creativity peculiar to musicians.

I don’t consider myself a creative artist in any other field, at least not to this point in my life, so I‘m not sure which creative dimensions may or may not exist in other realms of art. I would think that the dimensions of pitch and rhythm musicians work within are unique to our field, combined with the way our art unfolds in time, which is really a manifestation of rhythm. Of course, the primary focus in the musical creative process is the ear, both the physical and the inner. Any creative idea is either heard through an external vibration created through experimentation or performance, or as an internal idea, where it is heard in the mind, or with the “inner ear”.  Both these ‘ears’ influence one another. The aural phenomena we experience in music also give birth to the mathematical systems encountered in music theory. Some artists bypass this aspect of music consciously, although, like it or not, they’re still working within the theoretical system, one way or another.

Theoretically, creative people’s points of view and approaches toward life are flavored with ingenuity and inspiration. Can you further break down the description of how the creative process works, as you go about “doing what you do” in your craft?

Sometimes I play with students, letting them walk a tune while I solo, then switching. When they’re comping for me, often as not, they’ll stop me in the middle of a solo and ask, “Wait, what are you doing there?” The usual answer is, “I’m just playing.” Yeah, I could stop and analyze it, but often as not, I have no idea what I just did. It’s just happening subconsciously, and it’s the same for people who want to know how to create. The answer is don’t think about it; just let it happen. Practice the technical stuff until you can do it in your sleep, learn as many melodies as you can, and learn your theory like the back of your hand. Then when you play, take the opposite approach. Don’t think about it too much. Just go for it and let it come out. There is no magic button to push, no shortcut to creativity. You either have the talent for it or you don’t. I think everyone has some kind of creative ability, and it’s up to you as an individual to find out what that specific talent is. Most of my creative methods were found through trial and error and a lot of experimentation. Therefore, anyone reading this should bear in mind that this is only my perspective, and not any kind of universal law or method. Study and technique are required, and are essential in freeing the mind creatively, but creating is ultimately a personal thing. Nobody can really teach that. Learn the techniques of your instrument, and learn compositional techniques, as overcoming these physical and mental limitations will enable you to express yourself more fully on your instrument or with the pen, as the case may be. Think of technical knowledge as a reserve on which the subconscious and the emotions can draw. Then, listen for the music, which is everywhere.

I’d like to deconstruct this train of thought a bit more. Describe the creative mindset in operation in different aspects of playing bass. For example, how do you apply creativity to your rhythmic attack?

For rhythm, the rule of thumb for me is to get in the groove. Once you’re there, the creativity flows from that state. The physical and emotional state of the groove you’re in at the moment generates ideas from the subconscious and the heart. Rhythm is very physical in its human manifestation, so relaxing the body and feeling the state of rhythm physically is vital, as this will naturally create an organically felt sense of phrasing. If you’re not dancing, chances are nobody else will be, either.

A lot has been written about and discussed concerning the role of silence in music. Do you value the notes that aren’t there as much, the same, or more than the notes that are? How do you creatively and/or strategically use silence in your playing?

This is an important point. The definitive quote on this subject has to be from another mentor of mine, the great Eddie Harris, who instructed us to “Play a rest.” One of the other guys in the band said, “Yeah, leave some space.” He replied, “No, play a rest.” The spaces between the notes are just as much a part of the phrasing as the notes themselves and have to be played deliberately, with musical intent. That’s what gives the phrasing shape. It’s like speaking. People don’t just talk in straight eighth notes without stopping. The rhythms vary, and we take breaths, and pause for effect to make a point. I think he used the example of: “Hey! (rest rest rest rest rest) You know what I say!” If you just said that straight up and down, it would be boring. The rests make it funky.

So, when in doubt, do you leave it out?

It’s not so much a question of being in doubt or leaving anything out, it’s a question of intent, and of making a phrase speak. Miles Davis talked about the influence of Orson Welles’ speech patterns on his own phrasing. If you’re in doubt, you’re hesitating, therefore you’re dead in the water. That brings to mind another point Eddie taught me: If you’re indecisive in life, it will be reflected in your soloing. Ouch! Your question about leaving things out does raise a point, which Eddie also taught me (in Berlin, to be exact).  If you’re soloing over changes, you don’t have to play over every change. Let some of them go by!

Do you think creative form changes with musical form, or is it a static thing? How does the creative mindset differ and/or shift from when you’re practicing your Bach adaptations from cello to bass, to doing jazz improvisation, to articulating metal to playing straight-ahead rock and roll?

The manifestation changes with the form, but the essence of creativity is the same, in my experience. The creative mindset doesn’t really shift, it just takes on different forms, depending on the task at hand. Every genre or medium has its “rules” and “attitudes” that make it work, but I think of those as mental adjustments, which really don’t affect basic creativity. The big difference in jazz improvisation is that the process of composition itself happens in real time, which requires thinking on your feet at a much faster pace. You’re not just performing and executing something you’ve worked on for hours or days or weeks, you’re spontaneously creating in the moment.

What is it with you, Bach, and the bass?

Jaco said it best while looking at a piece of classical music on the music stand: “This is pure music.” When I play Bach, I’m simultaneously playing some of the highest spiritual and mathematical music known to man, practicing all the arpeggios and scales you could possibly hope to practice, and developing mastery of the instrument. What more could you ask for? The other thing I like about Bach is the sense of completeness in his works. I feel really satisfied when I get to the end of piece, and that the musical thought has been expressed in the fullest way possible.

In what ways did Jaco’s classical background affect his work and his sound? Since you were privy to Jaco’s classical side and are classically trained as well, how does this influence creatively factor into your own approach to playing bass? Stylistically, how does the classical influence impact approach, attack and fingerings in jazz and rock situations?

I can’t speak for Jaco, but the classical references in his work are plain as day. You can hear quotes from Bach, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Hovhaness, et al., in numerous recordings throughout his career. Pieces like “Forgotten Love” and “John and Mary” are drenched in classical influence. I think it entirely likely that his signature fretless sound was influenced by classical cello playing, but that’s just my opinion. The one thing I can comment on is the way he influenced my thinking in this regard. At the time I began studying with Jaco, I was practicing double bass a lot, playing in an orchestra and studying traditional harmony. I was learning classical music, mainly, but not quite feeling that as my ultimate calling in life. One thing that Jaco established early on, and which profoundly affected my own thinking, was the way he would look at Bach, or the cello etudes we concentrated on, analyzing the harmony like he was looking at a jazz tune. Generally, classical teachers analyze pieces using Roman numerals to indicate harmony. They call seventh and ninth chords major-minor-minor chords and such until your head is ready to explode. Jaco would just look at a bar of Bach and say, “that’s D minor seventh.” He once told me “Bach was Mr. Jazz.” He had a way of distilling music down to the essentials, of taking passages that seemed complex and explaining them simply, making them less intimidating. I began to realize that these sounds have been made for ages, and that they’re the same whether they’re called jazz, classical, rock, whatever. My fingerings on the bass were formed by the classical stuff I studied with Jaco, but fingerings, at least in the left hand, are really more about logic, not style. How do I get from this note to that note, how do I connect the phrases in the smoothest, most efficient way possible? In terms of approach and attack, I think classical music brought a sense of smoothness to my playing. It also enriched my love of harmony and melody.

What are the distinctions between being a creative person who happens to play bass, and being a creative bassist? In other words, can you describe creative form in a bass player and the nuts and bolts of what you perceive a “genuine” bass player is made of?

There are a few things I think a bass player needs to have going on. One is a willingness to be supportive, sort of a “behind the scenes” person. If you’re looking to be the star of the show, there are other instruments that would probably serve your purpose much better. The bassist needs to be able to hold down the fort rhythmically with the drummer while simultaneously articulating the harmony with the keyboard and/or guitar player. When I see, for example, guitarists pick up the bass, the first thing I usually notice is that they approach the instrument in a way that I can only describe as “top down.” They sound like they’re playing a melodic instrument instead of the bass. A good bassist has to think “bottom up,” in my opinion. That’s a tough one to explain, but basically you have to be able to get “underneath” the music, rhythmically and sonically. Even a busy, energetic, melodic player like Jaco had that feel. Play as if, in the event you were to stop playing suddenly, the whole thing would collapse.

Jaco Pastorius was your teacher, mentor and friend. As musicians, we all have our teachers and influences and styles of playing, but not all of us have had the privilege of being schooled by a legend who possesses a very distinct musical voice. How have you managed not to become another (please forgive the use of the label in advance) “Jaco clone?”

Thanks for saying that, but I think it’s safe to say that I probably was what some people would consider a Jaco clone at one point. Nineteen is a very impressionable age, you know? In addition to the attributes you mentioned, Jaco had a very dominating personality, not in a malevolent way, but in terms of having a naturally forceful character. He always seemed to know the solution to every problem. Whatever space he was in, he basically owned it, so it was very, very, difficult for a young, formative player like myself to go over to his house every week and not be totally overwhelmed by the magnitude of his genius and musical personality. He once insisted that I come over to his house one day so he could play me Heavy Weather before it came out, you know? These types of experiences really make an impact. Jaco totally influenced bass players who lived hundreds, even thousands of miles away, who had only heard his recordings or seen one of his shows, so how could I not be affected hanging out in his music room on a regular basis, and at such a young age? Later, he was at my gigs with Othello Molineaux all the time as well, listening, sitting in, and basically spearheading that little local scene we had going. I ended up in a real bind over this, not really knowing how to assert my own identity in the face of this powerful energy. Eventually, I deliberately more or less stopped the constant listening to him, didn’t take as many lessons, and started getting into more musical approaches that weren’t so “Jaco oriented.” Playing with Eddie (Harris) for so long forced me to develop some alternative approaches as well. I also started playing different instruments, like my 5 and 6 string basses, and getting more into my rock roots, eventually branching out into metal. I think I got to be a much more supportive player in the traditional sense, and abandoning the regular use of the sixteenth-note feel. It took some doing, though.

Relative to how you ultimately became your unique self as a bassist, would you share something personal with us regarding your relationship with Jaco?

Jaco was a very unique guy. I’ve never met anyone like him, before or since. He went to “eleven.” There are things I cherish most about my relationship with Jaco; like how generous he was to me with his time, the sharing of his knowledge, and how encouraging he was to me. He always talked me up around other musicians, and referred them to me for bass lessons. As intimidating as studying with the greatest bass player in the world could be at times, he always made me feel like I was in the ball game with him. This was immensely gratifying to a young, upcoming player. The “big ego” and the “eccentric behavior” aspects of his personality have gotten so much publicity, but the part about him that has stuck with me all these years later, is that dimension of his character. It was as if he knew he was tapping into an intense cosmic energy; that he had been blessed with greatness. He was really a generous guy about sharing that part of himself with people; and in bringing others up to his level. He didn’t hoard his genius to himself. I would have to say that what he taught me definitely pushed me to a higher level and enabled me to hang, musically, in some amazing company. He didn’t just teach me how to finger scales and play fast licks, he taught me how to think, musically. Jaco also used to make statements that were so off the cuff and informal, but he’d always hit the nail right on the head. He possessed an innate ability to look at any thing or situation and see it exactly for what it was. He also had quite a sense of fun and adventure, and a great sense of humor. It all blended together; there was no separation between life and music. Writing the Jaco book really made all of this hit home in a big way; how much I miss having him around, and how fortunate I was to have him as a teacher and friend.

Describe how creativity comes into play when you’re stylistically synthesizing, assimilating and blending the collective body of your musical influences into your own unique sound and style.

That’s all done subconsciously. I don’t think about it. The only conscious control is that if I find an idea to be a blatant ripoff of somebody else, I’ll probably toss it out (unless I think I can get away with it – insert emoticon here). To me, writing a tune or playing a solo boils down to four basic elements: melody, harmony, rhythm and form. My philosophy is that any of these elements can come from anywhere stylistically, as long as they all work together as a whole. I can look at a tune of mine, for example, Leapfrog, and see where I got inspiration from Miles Davis, Aaron Copland, Frank Zappa, and the Skatalites; surely a diverse group of influences. Yet it all fits together nicely, and that’s the trick. The conscious part comes into play more in the second phase, when I start cleaning things up, tightening up rhythmic phrasing, perfecting the voice leading, making definite decisions about form, and so on. But I love to let these seemingly disparate ideas find their home in one place. I tend to be drawn to other artists who have that eclectic sort of approach. I like the music to sound natural, and as a general guide, melody rules the world of pitch, and groove rules the world of rhythm. Everything else follows from that.

Ray Peterson’s book / CD package, Jaco Pastorius Bass Method: Lessons, Tips, and Techniques from His Private Teaching Archive, ISBN: 978-0634020315 is available at: www.bassbooks.com and www.amazon.com .

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Jane Kostopoulos

    August 4, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    I love Barbara! She rocks!

  2. Riley

    August 5, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Very cool! Wonderful stuff!

  3. Blizz

    August 5, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Bass is awesome, but takes practice..as I’m learning now.

  4. Tatia

    August 8, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Ray is one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met and I’m proud to be his friend,as he’s indeed a great musician and great person.

  5. Addie

    August 10, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Thank you Ray and Barbara. A partnership that is a perfect blend of intellect and talent. Bravo!

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